Handel: Water Music (CD review)

Ton Koopman, The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Erato 0825646138517.

The first thing you should know about Ton Koopman's rerelease of Handel's Water Music is that the Handel piece is the only thing on the disc. Most newer recordings of the Water Music come coupled with Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks or some other shorter Handel work. The Fireworks Music doesn't usually last more than twenty minutes, and this particular Erato album lasts only fifty-six minutes, so there was plenty of space for more than the one item. But that's no doubt the way Erato originally issued it, so that's what we get in this reissue.

The second thing you should know is that Koopman leads a period-instrument ensemble probably about half the size of the one observers of the day said Handel used. Supposedly, Handel had about fifty players floating down the river entertaining the king, and it seems as though Koopman's number is about half or less of that. Naturally, Handel and others of his era played the music in various arrangements thereafter, so the twenty-odd performers in Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra would not seem entirely out of line with historical practice. Besides, the smaller forces result in clearer orchestral textures, more-transparent sound.

The third thing you should know is that Koopman plays the music in the three traditional suites that most of us have come to recognize and appreciate, and he uses a limited timpani section. The fact is, Handel never seems to have organized the music into suites, and he didn't seem to use any timpani at all, maybe not even a harpsichord while floating down the Thames on a barge; so, again, Koopman's rendition does not break any taboos here, either.

I suppose more to the point is how Koopman compares with other highly regarded period-instrument accounts of the Water Music, like those from my favorites: Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi), Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert (DG Archiv), Jeanne Lamon and Tafelmusik (Sony), Jordi Savall and Les Concert des Nations (Astree), and Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque (Telarc). The answer here, of course, is pretty subjective, but for the most part Koopman compares favorably (if differently). I wouldn't place his interpretation or Erato's sound at the top of the pile, but it's in the mix.

Ton Koopman
Anyway, the German composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was living in England when he wrote the Water Music at the request of King George I, who ordered up music for a festive river party. In a letter to the King of Prussia, the ambassador Friedrich Bonet described the occasion this way: "Along side the King's barge was that of the musicians, fifty of them, who played all sorts of instruments, to wit trumpets, hunting horns, oboes, bassoons, German flutes, French flutes, violins and basses; but there were no singers. This concert was composed expressly by the famous Handel, a native of Halle and first composer of the King's Music. His Majesty so approved of it that he had it repeated three times, even though it lasted an hour on each occasion: twice before and once after supper."

Koopman's fifty-six minutes is pretty close to the hour described by Bonet, although Koopman's rendition seems at times a lot slower because of his tempo changes. His pacing ranges from very leisurely to reasonably quick within the moment, which keeps the music ever changing and the listener ever on his toes.

Listeners interested in a fast-paced, high-octane, ultra-exciting performance need to look elsewhere because Koopman keeps everything rather sensible and even sedate for a period-instrument interpretation. This is not to suggest, however, that Koopman's rendition is anything like dull or slow or stuffy. Nothing of the sort; it does, in fact, sound vibrant, alert, and alive. Yet the whole thing, all three suites, comes off with a regal and stately air, appropriate for music for a king.

Moreover, the Amsterdam players sound as polished and mellifluous as ever, with certainly nothing Raggedy Annie about their performance as sometimes happens with historically informed groups. The Amsterdam band perform with a splendid and justly famous richness and roundness. They are a pleasure to hear.

Producer Tini Mathot and engineer Adriaan Verstijnen recorded the music at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, Netherlands in June-July 1992, and Erato rereleased the disc in 2015. The small number of players provide for a reasonably clean, transparent sound. At the same time, the acoustic allows for a pleasantly mild resonance to help the music sound warm and natural. I missed only the smallest degree of sparkle at the high end and maybe a tad more dynamic contrast. Still, the engineers miked the ensemble at a moderate distance, further enhancing the illusion of reality with the presentation's space and depth, thus making the recording among the better ones for this work.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa